Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick: Roog (1951).

It's one of those images that stays with you.  There's this field, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, USA.  There's not enough detail to tell just where all this takes place, however from the look of the faded, Autumnal orange of the trampled or wild fields of grain or grass that surrounds the main setup on all sides, it looks very much as if we're situated somewhere in or at a cornfield, located somewhere in Nebraska.  It's nighttime outside, and while there aren't that many stars out, one or two can definitely be seen shining above in the night sky.  The field has a plowed up look to it.  It's not the appearance you might associate with the look of scorched earth.  This one is a lot more natural.  You're able to get a sense of tranquility from it.  It takes a while before you mind registers that it's the same type of cultivation that is sometimes used for bits of pasture that have been converted into a baseball field.  There's no Major League quality to be seen anywhere.  This is the sort of ballpark designed so that maybe the neighborhood kids will have someplace to go, or maybe even a dream to shoot for, if the mood is ever right.  There's even some equipment to be seen in the picture, though it's not the stuff you can play a good game with.

Instead, it's a motley assortment of items.  One might even call them somewhat eyebrow raising.  The easiest pieces to discern, the ones closest to the viewer, are one of those old, Red Ryder style firearms, the ones you literally could have just sent for in the mail.  Beside it to the viewer's right is what looks like an oversized Jack-in-the-Box, designed to look something like a pre-schooler's alphabet block.  If the sight of the latched lid of the Box wasn't visible for all to see, we might be wondering what we're looking at.  Located just a foot or two away from the Red Ryder gun is an old library book, one of those, old, faded shelf dwellers with the paper well on its way to becoming parchment with the passing of years.  I can't tell if there's anything on the cover, and that's sort of a shame.  You never know, it could have been a good story.  Located just to the left of the book is a combination football, complete with helmet.  What's notable about it is the headgear looks like the kind they used to have for the game way back before the 1950s or something.  It served its purpose well, and its still so out of date that it almost looks like the sort of thing a space pilot would where in one of those old, cheesy matinee serials.  A few feet further away is what looks like either a bicycle, or some kind of engine device.

All of this is dwarfed, however, by the final prop.  It's the one image that helps define the picture, and let's us know just what it all amounts to.  Situated a few good yards away from all this pop-cultural detritus is the looming figure of a rocket ship.  It's not the viable, scientific, space-worthy type we know from NASA.  This is one of those sleek, dynamic models, the kind you can still find on the covers of old pulp magazines, the type of design you'd find in the work Norman Saunders or Frank R. Paul.  This is the image that adorns the cover of an old, 1995 anthology edited Kim Mohan.  It was called Amazing Stories, as I recall.  This is a picture I ran across some time ago, and it's always managed to stick with me, for some reason.  I guess a lot of it has to do with the way it acts as a neat summation, of sorts.

To me, that picture (illustrated by an artist named Susan Hood, as I later found out) just managed to sum up the nature of Science Fiction to me.  Come to think of it, it probably still does.  What I like about it is that the picture was done by someone who knows there's nothing simple about the genre, not as it stands after the passage of so much history.  That's because of the way history keeps catching up with Sci-Fi.  There is a sense in which it is always out of date, because it deals more in myths, rather than any single scientific fact.  I'm guilty for the sin of trying to pin a label on things, here.  Of trying to to give the category a frame which might take the wind out of its sails.  This is the kind of dirty little secret that's guaranteed to tick off anyone who still hopes for the paradigm where the genre is always trying to stay one step ahead of the technological curve.  This was the ideal that the initial premise of the genre seems to have been based on, and popularized by the likes of John W. Campbell.  For the longest time, you had editors of old pulp magazines proclaiming that what they were publishing amounted to stories about "the World of Tomorrow", in bright, bold letters of glowing neon.

The trouble is that sooner or later the future is always going to catch up with such proclamations, and, yeah, let's just say what's interesting about the way the future was is not so much how it all seems quaint in its plethora of outdated qualities, but rather this lingering sense of naivete about the capabilities of technology, which not even the most persistent of human efforts will likely ever be able to achieve.  In that sense, any remaining zeal for such concepts is probably more of a dinosaur than the old magazine issues in which they originally appeared.  The funny thing is how none of this really seems to bother the silent, yet ever growing number of fans who are willing to flock to these old fancies, now captured forever on yellowing leafs of cheap paper that have still miraculously outlasted all the artists who helped bring it together.  There is a possible sense of glory somewhere in all that.

It's the sort of achievement which I'm willing to bet may even outlast all the various comings and goings of technology as a whole.  For better or worse, this is the Sci-Fi I grew up with.  In a lot of ways, it was sort of right there for me, in at the beginning.  I have a very vivid set of early memories about this.  Part of the reason they are so easy to recall is because they consist, in essence, of a number of well known films.  In chronological order, these are Lawrence of Arabia, Return of the Jedi, Amadeus, and Back to the Future.  These made up my first impressions of the world, the somewhat natural enough result being an outlook that combines a quirky taste for popular entertainment, that is somehow able to exist right alongside a somewhat literate sense of artistic sophistication.  It's weird, in other words, and perhaps not all that common, yet it can still happen, just here and there, is all.  One of the other results of this very young introduction to Science Fiction (from two of its flagship representatives, no less) was the also somewhat natural enough desire to seek out more where that came from.  Here's where I think the limitations of time and place have played a decisive factor in my exposure to the tradition.

My first impressions of Sci-Fi came at a pretty interesting time for the genre.  These days we like to say that Star Wars revitalized things, or broke new ground.  The funny thing is how I was sort of there when this was all happening, and so it's possible for me to tell another story about it.  One that is far different and removed from the standard pop culture narrative, which in itself is probably more of a recent invention, more than it is an established, historical fact.  The truth is that this sense of 80s Sci-Fi and Fantasy as this game-changing juggernaut is a late-come phenomena, at best.  The inevitable result of my generation reaching its brief period of cultural influence, resulting in the still current wave of retro 80s nostalgia on all the major media fronts, with the likes of Stranger Things, and Synthwave music.

What I find interesting about this is how it amounts to a desire for that past, and yet with few exceptions, there's this strange halting quality to the whole thing.  It creates an unintentional sense of irony, when you stop and think about how a natural enough ache for nostalgia has created some less than stellar consequences.  We 80s kids have been given however brief a window of time to demonstrate to the world how much of a Golden Age our pop culture was, or used to be, and yet we seem to have trouble realizing it on various screens, or printed media, for the most part.  This can be seen in the fortunes of the aforementioned Stranger Things, or the recent attempts to revive the Star Wars and Trek franchises.  Sooner or later they reveal that a vital quality has been left out of consideration, and it isn't surprising if the final products have no other choice except to suffer on the crucial artistic level, the one where it counts the most.  If this were just a one thing, then I could always write it off.  The fact that it keeps happening time and again all points to a continuing trend.  What that tells me, in turn, is that there's a sense of imaginative possibilities that's been lost, somehow.

I'm afraid I can't say why this should be the case.  Nor is there any good reason for why these results should be in any way inevitable, except that we choose to let it happen this way.  As I've said already, however, this is all just recent events.  A look back at the way the actual cultural impact of history played out tells a different story.  I should know, because as I said, I was there to see it happen, and it determined the only ways I seemed able to hunt down any more Science Fiction media, if I wanted it.  The truth, as far as I could tell, is that franchises like Star Wars always left a very muted impact once you reached street level.  Stuff like that was left to flicker across the movie or TV screen as far as the adult world was concerned.  Back then, if you wanted more where that came from, you were pretty much on your own.  See, we didn't have anything like a global network of fan communities when I was growing up.  Each Sci-Fi geek, or genre nerd was a collective series of lone voices in the desert.  

The reason for that is pretty simple if you just take a moment to try and remember that there was a time before the internet as we now know it.  In that respect, I'm something of a living artifact.  I have to be one of last remaining fossils of a time gone by.  If you had to give a name for the type of phenomena I represent, then I guess that makes me an Analog Man, or at least a vestige of it.  What it means in practice is that I might have liked Star Wars, and was interested in finding more where that came from, and so I had almost no resources.  There was no real demand for that kind of thing like there is now, and I knew I was just one voice with no real say in the matter.  Instead of the benefits of a time when whole centuries of lost media can be unearthed at the almost literal click of a button, I had to make do with whatever there was on brick and mortar bookstore racks, and anything I might find hanging around an old junk shop.  That's the way the 80s truly was for any devoted pop culture geek.

I grew up in the detritus of a number of eras.  The personal home computer was a relatively new invention that consisted of a black screen with green letters.  Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather was the type who was always on the lookout for a bargain, which means if he had charge of me for a day, then it meant being carted along to old used car lots, or scrap metal dealerships in search of whatever was affordable under Reaganomics.  The result is that my memory is now a collage of assorted bric-a-brac from various, interweaving timelines, the future and the past mingling together for one brief moment of transition before being swept under the rug of history.  In that sense, it was almost like living in a Sci-Fi story.  It was also mainly through this junk shop route that I was able to advance my knowledge of the genre.  What this meant in practice is that before I could ever learn about the future of space fiction, I was more or less stuck having to dig up its past.  This resulted in my making acquaintance with a list of names that I'm pretty mean next to nothing now, and yet the genre wouldn't exist without them.  Some of the names are still relatively well known, such as Arthur C. Clarke.

However, what about someone like Murray Leinster?  Ever heard of him?  How about Clifford Simak, or Hugo Gernsback?  Or what about scientific fantasists like A.E. Van Vogt, Diana Wynn Jones,  C.M. Kornbulth, Margaret St. Clair, James Blish, Eric Frank Russell, Catherine L. Moore, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Leigh Bracket, or L. Sprague de Camp?  These are the voyagers who made Sci-Fi what it is.  I got to know them all, and they do not deserve to be forgotten.  

Of course its always possible to demand otherwise, this is an observable fact.  Even if Marjorie Nicolson was one of the few women scholars of the 1940s who was not just a writer, but a recognized scholar who did her best to champion the genre to an academic audience way before it was popular.  You do you, however.  The way I got to know the majority of these overlooked names was through the auspices of an antiquated device known as Old Time Radio.  Peter Falk once observed that back before our age, TV was known as books.  It was also sometimes known as the Theater of the Mind, on occasion.  It was what households turned to whenever there was no stack of paper to hand.  For a good chunk of the early 20th century, Dramatic Radio was the closest thing to a national, mass communication.  It's also the other medium, besides books, where I learned about Sci-Fi.

The way it happened for me was through what " has been described as one of the finest offerings of American radio drama and one of the best science fiction series in any medium (web)".  It was a program called X Minus One, and in many ways, I'd still have to call it something of an ideal beginner's course for any young kid who has a burgeoning interest in the Sci-Fi genre.  What makes it such a good starting point is given by the Old Time Radio Plot Spot blog.  It notes that the program was a "direct tie-in with Galaxy magazine, a popular Sci-Fi digest of the period. Most of the stories were culled directly from the pages of Galaxy, or remakes of stories produced for Dimension X (of which X Minus One was originally a revival series). Many of Sci-Fi's most popular authors got mass exposure through this series, and even today X Minus One is still generally considered a cornerstone of radio drama (web)".  The upshot is something of an all-purpose nexus for days of the future past.

At least that's how I got my genre literacy, anyway.  All of this is kind of like stage setting, however.  I've gone into all this history because I felt what was needed more than anything for this post is a sense of the proper context that allows us the best possible doorway into our main subject.  This happens to be another author I discovered through the help of X Minus One.  It was an adaptation of a short story by an author known simply as Philip Kindred Dick.  I'm not here to talk about that radio adaptation.  Though it thought it is good jumping off point to talk about the first story he ever wrote.  Part of the reason for doing this was already explained, in a sense.  Here's the one hard truth I've learned from being a pop-culture junkie all my life.  The dirty little secret is it can only take you so far.  Once you've gone past the point of various trivial facts about the books and movies you enjoy, it's kind of like entering a blank slate space, if that makes any sense.  It's the sort of thing that tends to leave everyone with an empty-handed lack of knowledge that I for one, find downright aggravating.

What it does is leave both artist and audience in the lurch, when I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that there's always more to be uncovered, and that genuine talents shouldn't or can't summarized in the space of a phone tweet.  PKD is one of those Big Names who's suffered from the same flattening effect.  For instance, here's what I mean.  The next paragraph you read will be taken from the Dec. 1st, 2003 issue of a Wired retrospective of the author in question.  "Philip K. Dick liked nothing better than to toy with the fundamentals of human existence, reality chief among them, so what better for the movie than a bullet that may or may not be tearing through the main character's flesh? Like other Dick protagonists – Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, Harrison Ford in Blade Runner– Affleck finds himself struggling for equilibrium in a world where even the most elemental questions are almost impossible to answer. Can the senses be trusted? Are memories real? Is anything real?

"Dick died shortly before Blade Runner's release in 1982, and, despite a cult readership, he spent most of his life in poverty. Yet now, more than two decades later, the future he saw has made him one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. Paycheck, based on a 1953 short story Dick sold to a pulp magazine for less than $200, will bring close to $2 million to his estate. And movies based on more than a half-dozen other stories and novels are in the works – among them "The King of the Elves" at Disney, "The Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" at Miramax, and A Scanner Darkly at Warner Bros.

"Dick's anxious surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping the "matrix world" that most of us experience. Vanilla Sky, with its dizzying shifts between fantasy and fact, likewise ventures into a Dickian warp zone, as does Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Memento reprises Dick's memory obsession by focusing on a man whose attempts to avenge his wife's murder are complicated by his inability to remember anything. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers the life he's living is an illusion, an idea Dick developed in his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Next year, Carrey and Kate Winslet will play a couple who have their memories of each other erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick's themes are everywhere (web)".

This is the reputation that PK has managed to hold onto to this very day.  We'll have a chance to come back to that Wired article.  For right now, all that should be noticed is that while it's far from wrong, like all things associated with pop culture, it can only go so far before losing sight of the rest of the story.  I want to know if there's more to the author than just the troubled paranoiac of popular conception.  The best way I can figure how to do that right now is to start at the beginning, and see what, if anything, it has to tell us about one of the creative minds whose efforts can be said to have gone a long way towards helping to define the possibilities of Science Fiction.  In my mind, at least, that means the best candidate for examination ought to be a simple short story with a very unassuming title.  It's a quick piece known as "Roog", and it first saw light in the 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  As for where the weird sounding title came from, well, you better let me explain.

The Story.

Some smart aleck once made the claim that "Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness".  Either that, or else it's just a complete and total surrender to delusion.  If those are the only two options available to mankind as whole, then it's a wonder any viable knowledge even exists.  That's the main reason why I'll always have problems with "those" statements.  There's just too many contradictions involved.  For me, the art of "being aware" isn't the real problem.  The trouble is what to do in those moments when you know you've stumbled across a piece of information that could be vital, and yet there's no way to tell it without sounding like a lunatic.  Here's a worse thought, what if it's possible to run across a piece of information that is so damaging that the only sane course of action is to keep it forever under wraps?

The worst part is I can't tell if such a nightmare scenario even exists or not.  Though I have heard another claim which holds that the some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers throughout history sometimes felt the need to resort to such tactics.  The gist of this idea is that guys like Plato believed that their real opinions would be so scandalous, that they had to be couched in "useful fictions", statements that look as if they mean one thing on the surface, while all the time having a second, hidden meaning which only careful readers could decipher.  Does any of that sound like a textbook example of the paranoid frame of mind to you?  I don't know.  It just sounds so strange, no matter how you phrase it.  It's like there's always going to be aspects of so-called "normal life" that have no choice except to come off as "weird by default".  Another good example of what I'm talking about is the case of dogs.

No don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about man's best friend, here.  Taken for themselves, doggos are, or can be, just plain downright awesome.  Most of you will know what I'm talking about.  We don't call them fur babies for nothing.  It's just have you ever noticed the way they react to some people.  They'll be going along, normal as ever.  Just your typical, average, neighborhood bundle of fluff.  Then all of the sudden the next person comes along, turns the corner, and when they see this "Mr. Next in Line", its like one of the family just ups and loses their mind.  I know dogs can go into attack mode at the drop of a hat if they sense a threat in the area.  It's like a holdover survival instinct, or something like that, isn't it?  The remainder of ancestral memory from a time when all dogs were just wolves living in caves or having to scrape through life in the forest, because no one could live anywhere else.  That's what it means whenever they snap at someone like that, right?  If this is the case, then it sort of begs a question.  What do you suppose it is about a complete strangers that would set even the friendliest mutt in the yard off like that.  What sort of person could turn man's best friend into foe in an instant?

I know, for the record.  That sort of thing probably shouldn't be any big deal.  Just chalk it up to nerves or the natural, high strung state that most dogs tend to get into, even when they're on top of the world.  I get it, in other words.  And to be fair, I don't tend to make a molehill out of it, for the most part.  It's just that sometimes, on occasion, I'll stop and wonder at it.  It's as if there's something they didn't like about a certain person, almost on sight.  What do you suppose that means?  The reason I ask isn't for myself.  It's more of a problem one of the neighbors has been having with his own four-legged friend.

Alf and Pamela Cardossi have been a part of this neighborhood for as long as I've known them.  They were here long before I even moved into the block.  Nice couple, about as unremarkable as you can manage, yet I'll swear they've done a better job making things work out for themselves than any of us have tried, so far, at least.  Also, wipe that smirk off your face!  Anyway, the real issue isn't Al and Pam themselves, it's Boris.  He's their pet Labrador Retriever.  At least I think he's a Lab.  I could always be wrong on that score.  You'll have to excuse me if I'm not well versed in dog breeds.  All I know for certain is that we get along pretty much okay with each other, and that he doesn't like the garbage men.  I mean this mutt seriously dislikes the guys in charge of picking up the Cardossi's collective waste once a day each week.  I think the whole neighborhood is aware of this fact by now.  It's the one time of the morning in which Boris absolutely refuses to behave.  The sound of the truck itself isn't enough to wake the whole damn block.  The dog is able to accomplish that on his own.

Soon as it reaches his curb, Boris will dart out from under the house, and proceed to pour forth all the canine vitriol he's worth at them.  He's a got a pretty good carrying voice on him, does old Boris.  He also appears to be the proud possessor of a wicked sort of temper that I don't think anyone ever suspected, or knows what to do with.  He's just so darn docile and lovable the rest of the time.  That's what's so remarkable about it, in a way.  Now am I aware of the concept and fact of territoriality, I've been a dog owner myself.  That's what happens when a dog develops either a sense of attachment or possession for the household they're a part of to the point where they become hyper-protective of it.  The dog will often develop the sense of a guard, or sentinel whose duty is to ward all possible threats.  It's one of the most common occurrences in the ownership of a pet, and I've been on the receiving end of it myself, once or twice.  Thankfully, none of that was major.  It wasn't like how Boris is with the garbage men.

You must know what I'm talking about right?  A lot of folks have been told off by dogs before.  They can be aggressive, though it's not the same as going into attack mode.  When that happens in normal circumstances, it usually means the dog is trying to tell you two things at once.  (1) Keep back, this is mine/our property.  No trespassers allowed.  (2) If you insist on coming closer, you must prove you are safe to be around.  That's the basic gist of what most dogs are talking about whenever they bark at you from their own yards.  Its a phenomenon that's about as natural as the turning the Earth.  The trouble is Boris just has this way of making it seem unnatural.  Not so much the act of barking at others, just so much as what he does with it.  I've said that regular dogs never go on the attack when that happens.  With Boris, it's different, however.  Every time those same two garbage collectors roll around, he's always there at the fence, chomping at the bit.  This isn't a brusque, though well meaning request for fealty.  It's a flat out warning, "Fuck and around and find out".  I think Boris would try to rip those two apart if he got the chance.  There's another quality to it all, and this is the part that really bugs me.

Have you ever sat up, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning?  I have.  It's a practice I've gotten used to.  Boris has helped see to that.  I've spent at least two and a half years listening to that four footed runt yelling his head off at the garbage men by now.  The longer I've had to listen, the more concerned I've begun to get.  At first I thought it sounded like just plain orneriness.  It wasn't until the end of my first year in this neighborhood that I picked up on the level of anger in his voice.  It wasn't a note of caution, either.  This dog was pissed, maybe even offended by the very presence of the trash collectors.  He'd growl and threaten, where others of his kind are just content to yap and moan.  As time went on, I began to detect another note in his voice.  At first it was just pure, blind outrage that I couldn't put a finger on.  Lately, however, Boris's early morning tirades have taken on a different quality.  There's a blind, panicked desperation to those dulcet tones, now.  If the first movement amounted to little more than "Go away!", this second one carries a different message.

"DANGER"!  That's point he now seems to be trying to get across.  He seems to be operating under a sense of complete threat.  And he's kind of losing his shit about it.  What on earth could set any dog off like that?  It's a question that wouldn't stop nagging at me after a while, even if I knew it was probably just an overreaction.  The thing is that note of alarm in Boris's voice just wouldn't go away.  I'd be seated at the kitchen table, sipping my coffee, listening to the Cardossi's dog repeat his ritual morning announcements of fear and alarm.  At least that's how it sounds to me now.  Besides, like I mentioned in passing, I've been a dog owner.  I guess it means sooner or later you start to pay attention to what they might be trying to tell you.  At least that's the best excuse I've got for what I did next.  One day I didn't just make myself a cup of Morning Joe, I went and took it out into the front yard with me.

The first thing I did once I was outside was to seek out that one spot in my yard fence.  If you make your way toward a certain plank in the artificial wall, you'll come across a knothole that gives one a good view onto the Cardossi's lawn.  Just something I noticed on my way to check the mail the other day.  When I first looked through it I caught Boris playing out on his lawn.  He must have been able to catch that I was nearby, as he gave out a friendly hello yap and wagged his tail, all while looking more or less at the exact spot on the fence.  It was this discovery which allowed me a front row seat at roughly 5:17 AM, the same time the garbage truck always tends to arrive on our block.  It's the first time I ever got a good look at Boris's little early bird shenanigans.  I think I know what I saw, and heard.  However, I'm also not to sure if I just imagined things.  I may have been letting my own worst thoughts get the better of me.  Maybe this is what happens when it's just you in the house, all alone, and its still dark out, even if the Sun will be arriving shortly.  Perhaps if you keep that up for too long, you run the risk of jumping at shadows.  At least I hope that's all I did.

The garbage men came, as usual, and they did the same routine as everywhere else, and it was over in a few minutes.  The funny thing is how for a second or two I could have sworn I was looking at something else going on, and I'm not sure what.  The light from the street lamps had a flat quality to them, making the faces of the garbage men look almost like rubber masks.  There was even a moment when a trick of the light made it seem like the two appeared as fuzzy, indeterminate shapes, walking back and forth across the front lawn.  I think the hole in the fence got in the way there a bit.  It gives a good view, but its not exactly panoramic widescreen quality, or anything like it.  Either way, nothing happened.  The collectors shared a bit of conversation, and then they left.  They might have said something in passing about Boris, yet I couldn't tell what it was.  I haven't bothered to check on the weekly pickup ever since.  Too nervous, if you want the truth.  I guess you could say its more comforting to believe I was just seeing things that day, and Boris has no real cause for worry.

Because wouldn't it be odd if there were something in it?  I mean the idea of a dog being the only one who knows what's up, and is unable to warn others about an approaching danger, unless someone decided to lend a hand of course.  Then again, what on earth am I even saying whole thing is ridiculous.  It just doesn't stand to reason.  I mean, if you go around thinking that the light caught from the street lamps in the eyes of a stranger makes you think you're watching a being that just looks human, well then you'd find yourself stuck with the same question I asked way back at the beginning.  What's the difference between perfect awareness, and complete, and utter paranoia?

The Genre Context of PKD.

The idea that "Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness" isn't an original concept.  It was first put forward by none other than Stephen King, in the course of his influential, book-length study, Danse Macabre.  It's a topic he brought up in the course of a discussion of Jack Finney's Body Snatchers.  I cited it in the opening of the synopsis above, because I felt it germane to the writer and the story under discussion here.  While Finney and Dick are not often brought together in a discussion of Science Fiction thrillers, the truth is that might be an unobservant oversight.  As it stands, there is remarkable number of similarities between Finney's narrative of small town paranoia, and pretty much everything that Dick set down on paper.  Jonathan Lethem is one of the few critics who seems to have paid attention to this connection.  As he devotes a paragraph or two to this relation in the course of an introduction to an anthology of Dick's collected magazine stories.  He calls him American literature's Lenny Bruce.

"Like Bruce, he can seem a pure product of the 1950s (and, as William Carlos Williams warned, pure products of America go crazy), one whose iconoclastic maladaptation to the conformity of that era seems to shout ahead to our contemporary understanding.  And, as with Bruce, the urge to claim him for any cultural role - Hippie, Postmodern Theorist, Political Dissident, Metaphysical Guru - is defeated by the contradictions generated by a singular and irascible persona.  Still, no matter what problems he presents, Dick wielded a sardonic yet heartbroken acuity about the plight of being alive in the twentieth century, one that makes him a lonely hero to the readers who cherish him (vii)".

As far as stage setting goes, Lethem manages the feat of being useful and self-indulgent all at once.  On the one hand, it does tend to come off as a bit overwrought, doesn't it?  Like the ramblings of a hot-headed youth who's probably never met a real challenge in his life.  He also runs the risk of cloying panegyric.  Even in this first opening paragraph, there are times when Lethem is in danger of letting his interests get the better of him.  He's like a fanboy who can't stop gushing about one of his enthusiasms to borderline embarrassing extremes.  It's no wonder then if the inevitable result is the committal of historical faux-pas, amounting to a bit of critical shortsightedness here and there.  The one element that balances all these others out is that Lethem has done us the favor of situating Dick in his context.

"Dick's great accomplishment...was to turn the materials of American pulp-style science fiction into a vocabulary for a remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation.  It's a vision as yearning and anxious as Kafka's, if considerably more homely.  It's also as funny.  Dick is a kitchen-sink surrealist, gaining energy and invention from a mad piling of pulp SF tropes - and cliches - into his fiction: time travel, extrasensory powers, tentacled aliens, ray guns, androids, and robots.  He loves fakes and simulacra as mush as he fears them: illusory worlds, bogus religions, placebo drugs, impersonated police, cyborgs.  Tyrannical world governments and ruined dystopian cities are default settings here.

"Not only have Orwell and Huxley been taken as givens in Dick's worlds, so have the Old Masters of genre SF like Clifford Simak, Robert Heinlein, and A.E. Van Vogt.  American SF by the mid-1950s was a kind of jazz, stories built by riffing on stories.  The conversation they formed might be forbiddingly hermetic, if it hadn't quickly been incorporated by Rod Serling and Marvel Comics and Steven Spielberg (among many others) to become one of the prime vocabularies of our age (vii-viii)".

The vital piece of information that Lethem is able to give us comes from the way he specifically identifies Dick with the immediate post World War II setting of 1950s America.  In order to get a good idea of what this type of postwar milieu was like, and how it makes sense that PKD was a more or less a prototypical product, and artistic expression of that era, perhaps the best way of describing it is to compare and contrast a number of critical viewpoints that were actually born and raised in that timeline, and who would know the atmosphere of that era like a native.  It might even help if we use contrasting points of view for this purpose, as it might help give us a greater overall picture of what it was like to be a child of the 50s.  Another advantage is the way it allows us to look at how two aspects of the decade could manage to occupy the same space in the mental zeitgeist of the times, attesting to the almost schizoid quality that Dick was able to capture with great skill in his best work.

The first vantage point comes from the writings of John Clute.  In the course of his otherwise impressive, and monumental compilation effort, Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Clute devotes two pages to the theme of paranoia in 1950s Sci-Fi, just the very topic that forms a vital part of this review.  What's shocking to discover is just how dismissive Clute is about the idea as a whole, and in particular a number of books, and movies that have gone on to assume classic status in the minds of generations of the genre's fans.  "By the time the 1960s came around", Clute believes, "readers, and critics, and filmgoers could be forgiven a certain amount of impatience with the themes and styles of the 1950s - a decade which could be designated the period during which Ostrich SF continued to triumph - but at the time the fears were real, and in our entertainments we needed to exorcise the ghosts of fear (264)".  Clute then makes an observation which might be revealing.

"Pure SF", he claimed, "is not very good at exorcising ghosts.  It's strengths lie in the exposure of ideas to discussion, and in telling action filled stories that allow us to see how these ideas work out.  When it comes to putting our fears into some visceral shape by destroying the monsters that represent them, SF tends to flounder somewhat (ibid)".  What happens next is nothing less than Clute revealing what has all the appearance of a pet peeve, and the way he turns over this major card in the deck tends to say a lot more about the critic, I think, than it does about exorcising ghosts, or even an intelligent discussion of ideas.  For Clute, films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Them! all trend toward one, over-arching idea.  This is, in his words, "a dislike and fear of intellectuals (ibid)".  He seems willing to admit there is a discussion going on with these films.  It's just one that doesn't appeal to him.

If I'm permitted to be blunt for a minute, it was one of those passages that leaves my jaw on the floor.  I suppose the major reason for such a strong reaction is because of how easy it is to spot the narrowness of the critic's interests in regard to a genuine aspect of Sci-Fi.  Perhaps it helps to clear something up first.  Contrary to whatever Clute may think of "Ray Gun Gothic", the truth is that the last thing it wishes to abolish is a sense of genuine intellect.  Indeed, far from being an Ostrich with its head in the ground, one of the main preoccupation of 50s Science Fiction (in particular with films like This Island Earth, The Thing from Another World, and It Came from Outer Space) might very well be classified as the search for a genuine intellect.  In that sense, it carries on the traditions of the knowledge quest that was started centuries ago in the classical Grecian academies.  Also like Plato and Aristotle, 50s Sci-Fi often seemed to remember (even in its Poverty Row, Grade Z productions) that great knowledge has to mean an equal or greater amount of responsibility.  That is the exercise of genuine intelligence.

It's also a maxim that Clute seems problematically uninterested in.  If this opens me to a charge of being anti-intellectual, all I can reply is that it's a mistake to just get rid of science, pure and simple.  That is an example of common sense.  So is the observation that the ability to wield science for man's benefit depends on an ethical mindset that is psychologically unwilling to utilize the inevitable march of technology for selfish or abusive ends.  In other words, we've got to do a lot better than we are now with our current 21st century paradigm.  P.W. Singer, and Emerson Brooking go even further in their book Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.  At the end of their study, the authors claim that rather than taking us further up into the stars, modern tech has brought us right back to Plato's Cave.

"Indeed, it is notable that one of the lessons of Plato's cave are a core theme of one of the foundational movies of the internet age, The Matrix.  In this modern reworking, it is computers that hide the true state of the world from humanity, with the internet allowing mass-scale manipulation and oppression.  The Matrix came out in 1999, however, before social media had changed the web into its new form.  Perhaps, then, the new matrix that binds and fools us today isn't some machine-generated simulation plugged into our brains.  It is just the way we view the world, filtered through the cracked mirror of social media.  But there may be something more.  One of the underlying themes of Plato's cave is that power turns on perception and choice.  It shows that if people are unwilling to contemplate the world around them in its actuality, they can be easily manipulated.  Yet they have only themselves to blame"

(272).  It's a lesson that Clute didn't seem to bear in mind when he wrote the words quoted a few paragraphs above.  It may be possible to cut him this much slack.  When I turned to look at the copyright, the book was revealed to have been published in 1995.  It is therefore something of an antique by current standards, the product of another time and, in the most literal sense, another world.  I wonder what the Clute of today would have to say to his 90s era self if had a Delorean of his own?

Here's what I know for sure.  It's that history has been kinder to films like The Deadly Mantis and The Horror of Party Beach  more than it has to the Futurist dreams of Clute's imaginings, and one of the writers who was able to take a pretty good pulse on all of this, was none other than old Philip K.  Jon Lethem made another good observation on this point in an interview with the library of America.  When PKD first entered the genre ghetto of the time, according to Lethem, "science fiction was preoccupied with genuine scientific developments, space exploration boosterism, and a super-rational cognition. Where everyone else was writing about extrapolation and thinking hard about real possibilities, Dick was attuned to the unconscious, the irrational, the paranoiac, the impulsive. His stories had a wildly hallucinatory nature that he treated as if it were rational".

Lethem then goes on to highlight a key feature we've already touched upon, yet I feel it's worth printing, because it does showcase an awareness of the limitations of the genre.  With that said, I don't believe that phrase should be taken in any kind of harsh light, as it's not the same as calling a story bad.  To my way of thinking, a fairy tale can still be good, even if it's couched in a pseudo-scientific overlay.  That's why it's sort of gratifying to hear Lethem say that "the stories of the other science fiction writers were not as rational as they claim. They were quite in the grip of a fabulating imagination or wish fulfillment. They were writing fairy tales more than they acknowledge (web)".  To which all I can do is to maintain that none of this is a bad thing, in and of itself.  It's a question of modernity and myth.

Dick seems to have been one of the many writers capable of tapping into this aspect of the genre.  Part of what allowed him to stretch his creative capabilities in this regard was because of the explosion of a different form Science Fiction story.  I can't say that it was anything new, in retrospect.  Authors such as Ray Bradbury could more or less have been said to pioneer this type of story as far back as the early 1930s.  The difference was that aside from the likes of Bradbury, Brackett, and Lewis Padgett, the majority of the field was dominated by the so-called Hard SF pioneered by Isaac Asimov.  The more mythic form of Sci-Fi really began its heyday in the aftermath of events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The world was beginning to get a better sense of technical and human limitations, and the initial honeymoon romance with technology was starting to wear off.  Readers were now ready and willing to discuss the ethical price tags of science within the confines of the very same genre that had brought it into the spotlight.  In many ways, a lot of the later Sci-Fi of the 50s comes off as an act of self-imposed penance, for lack of a better word.  Everyone was now stuck having to consider outer space as a mirror of the inner faculties and chambers of the human microcosm.  PKD was right at home here.

This is the point where Lethem is able to do us another favor.  He helps give as neat and succinct a definition of the type of movement within the genre that Dick belonged to.  "(He) was more or less properly understood to be of a piece with a group of writers known as the Galaxy writers because that was the magazine in which they published. Robert Sheckley, Frederick Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, William Tenn, and a number of other writers were nudging science fiction to a greater use of satirical, social commentary. They used satire to expose some of the traps, paradoxes, and perversities of consumer capitalism (ibid)".  Taken altogether, the major achievement of the Galaxy Group was the ability to take a genre that had up until then what Lethem referred to earlier as this "hermetic" quality to it.  I don't think they abolished this quality, so much as they found all the right ways to take it mainstream, into the living rooms of American households across the country.  This is the also the same time when EC Comics made space fans out of countless readers as well, don't forget.  It was this mainstreaming that I'm convinced is what allowed Science Fiction to survive and thrive on in the postwar era.  

It also allowed the Galaxy authors to raise Science Fiction's banner further out of the ghetto, and gave themselves permission to delve into the inner qualities of the playing field.  This, in turn, enabled them to rediscover a sense of Humanism that had probably always been a part of the genre, but which had probably been eclipsed for a time during the first excited rush of modern industrialization.  This allowed the field a greater sense of satirical thematics, as Lethem observed.  However another perk is that it gave the writers permission for a greater sense of fun and whimsy, which enabled their imaginations to explore greater artistic frontiers.  

In this regard, the Galaxy Group could be said to have a lot in common with other writing collectives of the times, such as the California Sorcerers.  The one thing to regret in all this is just how much neat history has been lost to popular awareness.  These days, the few remaining names that contemporary readers might be familiar with belong more to the names of two later writers who function more as the natural offspring of the Galaxy movement.  That being Andre Norton and Madeleine L'Engle.  Suffice to it say, though, it was all a pretty big deal at the time, at least if you were a pulp magazine nerd.

Conclusion: The Start and Manifesto of a Career and Lifetime.

It's sort of funny, because the last time I read this work, I came away with a different take from the one I have now.  At it's heart, the work tells the tale of a simple, neighborhood dog, and the fateful encounters he has every time garbage day rolls around.  That's it.  The entire contents of the story, its setting, cast of characters, and main action beats, are all drawn with such succinct care and detail, that I'm almost forced to offer it up as a good example to teach for college writing courses.  There's no doubt at all that we're reading the work of a first time writer.  There is nothing in the way of "gilt" and "flash" to be seen anywhere.  It's a mistake that a lot of entry level wordsmiths tend to go for right out of the starting gate, and to be fair, you can just make out the logic they're following after.  What better way to make a first impression than to start things off with as big a bang as possible.  That'll be sure to get everyone's attention.  The trick there is to avoid just the sort of attention you don't want.

The pitfall of starting out big and loud can sometimes rest in the way that the new writer is just setting himself up for a major trip up, the kind where the law of artistic entropy takes over, and the writer always has to wind up flat on his face, in the ruins of a confusing jumble of words that he might once have thought was a usable story.  It's why I tend to think the best foot forward out of the starting gate happens to be the cautious one, more often than not.  Not every debut performance can appear with all the conceptual grandeur of a Watership Down.  Most of the time, our favorite writers begin with just a handful of training bike efforts that deliberately manage to showcase just some of their creative strengths, while making sure to leave hints, here and there, of the sort of artistic range they might be truly capable of, always provided the talent needed to pull those complex feats off in the first place. Russell Hoban, for instance, started small before making his way to Riddley Walker, or The Mouse and His Child.  Even Tolkien decided to introduce the world to Middle Earth in baby steps with The Hobbit.  And Dickens first saw his name in print with just a few sample Sketches by Boz.

In much the same way, Philip Dick took his time in readying himself for works like Time Out of Joint, or the novel that inspired Blade Runner.  In the case of a work like "Roog", what you get is an example of the beginner learning how to start out playing it smart.  The original manuscript copy ran to just eight pages, and there's a lean, bare-bones quality to the finished product.  None of it suggests anything with too much fat on it.  Every line of dialogue, or dramatic gesture is there to play its part, and no more.  That's because Dick is able to see the entirety of his initial idea in clear, solid outlines, and rather than an entire secondary world, you can tell he's somewhat relieved to have to be dealing with no more than just this one house on an imaginary suburban block.  It gives things the right sense of professional polish that one would expect for a respectable start in the field.  A good example can be found in a snippet from the very first page of the narrative.

"It was early morning, and the sun had not really come up yet. The air was cold and gray, and the walls of the house were damp with moisture. The dog opened his jaws a little as he watched, his big black paws clutching the wood of the fence.  The Roog stood by the open gate, looking into the yard. He was a small Roog, thin and white, on wobbly legs. The Roog blinked at the dog, and the dog showed his teeth (13)".  That is as far as we can go in terms of setup and action.  We have just two pieces of the barest description of the stage trappings.  We're then introduced to the main character, and already he's poised to begin the action of the piece.  When he does, we meet the antagonists of the play, the Roogs of the tile.  Dick is able to accomplish all this in the space of just five easy sentences.  Here's another:

"The sun came up. The street became bright and alive with color. The postman went along the sidewalk with his letters and magazines. Some children hurried by, laughing and talking.  About 11:00, Mrs. Cardossi swept the front porch. She sniffed the air, pausing for a moment.  “It smells good today,” she said. “That means it’s going to be warm.” In the heat of the noonday sun the black dog lay stretched out full length, under the porch. His chest rose and fell. In the cherry tree the birds were playing, squawking and chattering to each other. Once in a while Boris raised his head and looked at them. Presently he got to his feet and trotted down under the tree.  He was standing under the tree when he saw the two Roogs sitting on the fence, watching him (13-14)".  There's a bit more to it with this next sample.  We're given a snapshot of the author stretching his legs for the first time, and the result is found to be competent.

A few more props and players are allowed onto the stage this time, some of the previous dark spaces in the theater are now allowed the briefest of moments to shine, thanks to Dick deciding to throw a minor bit of the spotlight onto them.  Again, the background is sketched in with just two sentences.  From then on, the narrative focus returns once more to the main cast, and even their actions and dialogue remain at the bare minimum.  There are just three actions performed within the space of a single paragraph, and so there has been just one line of dialogue.  If this really were performed on a stage or a film, it would almost come off as a kind of silent pantomime, one where every plot point was conveyed more by gesture than words.  The curious part is how Dick's terse, no nonsense prose manages to find all the right ways of keeping us immersed in the world within the pages, and he does it like a pro.  Dick's initial efforts are so good, in fact, that I think it's best to head off another form of criticism.

You here the phrase less is more when it comes to a lot of popular books and authors.  Not even a talent like Tolkien has been able to escape this charge.  It's not too implausible for someone out there to sooner or later arrive at the notion of why can't all books be this short and simple?  If anyone has ever entertained this idea, they are welcome to it.  The one thing you must agree to do, however, is to admit that even the merest sense of entertainment proper is the last thing that interests you.  Real life, or whatever aspects of reality that happen to fascinate you the most, might be your true object of interest.  If that's the case, it's up to time and tide to tell which of us is the wiser.  In the meantime, please don't point to a story like "Roog" and try to hold it up as the golden maxim for all fiction, especially not in terms of length.  When I say that Dick's doesn't have any fat on its bones, I don't mean it in the same way others do when they wish that LOTR was either shorter, or else just plain faster somehow, more intense.  If this you're idea of a good story, then I'm afraid the best fiction will ever have to offer is always going to be something of a disappointment.  That's because it all has to be on the table.

The length of a story can never be a definitive tell of quality.  For that, you have to learn how to study the actual content of any given narrative.  From this perspective, claiming that Dick has discovered the key to writing through the use of a metaphorical Cliffnotes is the dead giveaway for someone to whom an actual story is less an essential of reality, and more any given convenience of the moment.  If this description fits anyone reading this, then perhaps its best to stop right here and find a better use of your time, because fiction just won't cut it for you.  Lewis Carroll's Alice once confessed to not seeing the point of a book if it didn't contain pictures and conversations.  Jump forward to today, and I just got done listening to a modern fan critic saying that the reason a film she just watched had to be a failure was precisely because it contained just the sort of conversations that Alice thought to be vital.

It's the kind of mindset that doesn't do either the artist, the audience, or itself any good, at least not so far as make-believe is concerned.  When it comes to fiction in general, the golden rule always has to be that the question of length can only be settled by how much story there is to uncover.  There really is no other way around it.  This is something that I think even Dick was aware of, as much as he was savvy about the available column space he would have to work with as a writer for pulp magazines.  It meant writing not just under a deadline, but also with a constant awareness of the limitations of shelf space.  This is just a momentary requirement that Dick was aware of, and so he wound up having to make sure that every single word he wrote would count.  A lot of this is something Dick was willing to credit as the result of a lot of useful help from a good mentor.

Here's what Dick says in the Author Notes at the back of my copy of Paycheck and Other Stories, the anthology volume that I've had in stacks and shelves around my place for several years now.  "The fact that Roog sold was due to Tony Boucher, outlining to me how the original version should be changed.  Without his help I'd still be in the record business.  I mean that very seriously.  At that time Tony ran a little writing class, working out of the living room of his home in Berkeley.  He'd read our stories aloud and we'd see - not just that they were awful - but how they could be cured.  Tony saw no point in simply making it clear that what you had written was no good; he assisted you in transmuting the thing into art.  Tony knew what made up good writing.  He charged you (get this) one dollar a week for this.  One dollar!  If ever there was a good man in this world it was Anthony Boucher (401)". 

So with everything in place, and not much in the way of excess baggage to carry, how does the story hold up on the most important level of entertainment?  Well, that's an interesting question.  The reason I say this is not because the final product is bad in any way.  On the contrary, the biggest surprise I didn't count on was for the story's plot to sneak up on me in a way I wasn't really expecting.  It's a short story I can recall reading from quite a long time ago, and so I thought I knew what I was dealing with.  Instead, what I got was a nice vignette of daily life couched in a well timed sense of growing menace and threat.  It's a quality of underlying Terror that Dick is able to introduce onto his miniature stage with a casual seeming ease, and understatement.  So when it hits the audience that there may be an actual threat, one which is not being dealt with, it allows the writer to leave in us state of pleasant unease as the final lines are spoken.  All of this is conveyed through the first person limited lens of a dog's eye view of the world.  What makes it all of a surprise is because that's not how I remember the first time.

In my memory, what I don't recall is a series of exchanges and actions taken by the garbage men in the story.  All I can recall is just a few meager slice-of-life scenes, with a vague sort of comic overlay to the proceedings.  In other words, my first read through left me with the impression that I was just following a day in the life of a not too bright, yet essentially lovable canine.  To be fair, I think the writer might be to blame for that.  I don't have too good a recall of that first browse through the text, however the chain of events could have been that I went first to the end of the book when I noticed the author had provided his customers with some helpful behind the scenes info.  It was there that I read the following:

"So here, in a primitive form, is the basis of much of my twenty-seven years of professional writing: the attempt to get into another person's head, or another creature's head, and see out from his or its eyes, and the more different that person is from the rest of us the better.  You start with the sentient entity and work outward, inferring its world.  Obviously, you can't ever really know what it's world is like, but, I think, you can make some pretty good guesses.  I began to develop the idea that each creature lives in a world somewhat different from all the other creatures and their worlds.  I still think this is true.  To (the dog, sic), garbage men were sinister and horrible.  I think he literally saw them differently than we humans did (402)".  There's a lot more to unpack there than just where did the story come from.  We'll get to that in a minute, however.  Right now there's the effect such an introduction can have on the reader.  Because I went to the notes first, and the story second, I think Dick's words might have wound up coloring the way I read the story.  It gives the impression that everything is cut and dried.

All we've been given is the idea that "Roog" is nothing more than a look inside the personal delusion of a backyard pet.  I'll go so far to admit that this is certainly just one way the story can be read.  Keep something in mind, however.  This is Philip K. Dick we're reading, here.  Nothing is ever as it seems, or in any way so simple as that.  It's a de facto given in just about everything he ever wrote.  Almost like one of those mandatory warning labels you have to slap onto every can of reality altering bug spray.  All of which is to say that on the first perusal, it's easy to see why I read the story in one way.  What makes a work of fiction like this special, however, is that it's also the kind of writing that can grow and mean something completely different when you come back to it after a number of years.  The only other time that has ever happened is with a novella by Peter Straub, and I think those kinds of events are blessing in disguise.  It's not often that a work of fiction reveals itself as greater on the inside. 

This time around I wasn't just left to sit back in bemusement about the charming quirks of one of our four-legged friends.  This time I wound up getting a closer look at those garbage collectors.  They were looking kind of different after a lot of water under the bridge.  There was a genuine off-kilter quality to them.  Their size and shape seemed off, and they spoke real funny.  And for the record, no, I don't mean any of that in the worst ways its possible to talk about even a complete stranger.  This was something else entirely.  Their necks were written as being too oblong, like that of a miniature giraffe, and the way the limbs were talked about put one in mind of an octopus version of the human hand.  If it can still even be thought of as human any more.  I think I might have discovered another layer to the story.

Without going too much into spoiler territory, the basic fact comes down to this.  The way the two garbage men are written leaves enough room for the idea that maybe there's more to this story than meets the eye.  I once recall a film director named Walter Hill saying in an interview that ambiguity was one of the measures of true art.  It's one of those sentiments to which I'm able to grant a given amount of assent.  For instance, there are times when it's clear we're dealing with art that can be said to be in search of its own statement.  There's no shame in this, for the record.  Some of the best stuff I've either seen or read falls into this category.  It's even possible to pinpoint interesting examples, such as Apocalypse Now,  which somehow manages to straddle the line between a story of statement and search.  Dick's narrative is one of those types that more or less deliberately winds up interrogating the actual events of its own plot.  The author's own words affirm that this was very much a deliberate move.

It's the first time that Dick is able to successfully play out a note that he would continue to riff on for the remainder of his career.  The possibility of an unreliable aspect to reality, or the idea that the subject has overlooked or is able to uncover or stumbles upon a vital clue that forces them to realize that the truth of the everyday was never what they thought it was is almost the ultimate plot of everything Dick ever wrote.  Almost the single other alternative to be found in his repertoire is the trope of the lone individual who somehow knows the truth behind the various and sundry illusions of "reality", and whose knowledge then becomes an isolating factor in his life, and the rest of the story plays out more like the classic Cassandra Truth narrative.  That's more or less how things play out here.  It is just possible to claim that perhaps Boris is right.  Maybe he really is onto something.  What if there is an actual alien invasion going on, and the invaders are just using disguises too clever to see through?

If this is the lens you choose to look at the story through, then lumping PKD on the same shelf a Jack Finney begins to make a bit more sense.  It places the obscure short story, and the more famous Sci-Fi book within a sub-tradition of of postwar American paranoia.  One in which there's a Pod Person conspiracy lining every block, and the only ones who can see it are the otherwise friendly, neighborhood flea factories.  The one thing that marks each example out from the other is that same, note of intriguing ambiguity that Dick decides to allow to remain even as the curtains starts to go down on his initial efforts.  That vague sense of uncertainty which just helps to add to the overall sense of unease that the story has done so well at building up in our minds.  Is their really a hostile takeover going on underneath all the humans' noses, or is poor old Boris really just deluded in his little doggy mind about what's happening in the world around him?  I think it's possible to have a decent enough answer to that question, based on the way Dick paints the two collectors, however, I'll also let other decide for themselves.  This is also kind of the way I feel PK would have wanted things to be.

In a perhaps fitting enough twist, this was an alternative aspect to the story that the author himself was helpful enough to point out.  In an interview as a visiting writer to a local high school, Dick explained just how certain creative choices led to the vital sense of ambiguous paranoia that allowed the story to have its complete identity.  In a question regarding a key scene in which the "Roogs" are shown perched on a fence, Dick admits: "Now that’s why this is actually a fantasy more than just a viewpoint tale. Because that, of course, doesn’t really happen in real life. Garbagemen don’t jeer at the dogs. At least I don’t think so...Ask the dog.  Maybe he knows something we don’t know. This is an elaboration of a fantasy area – a kind of psychological fantasy area. He says, “Hey! You there, man. You with the funny-looking fur. What’s your racket? What are you doing?” And you don’t know whatever really annoys the dog. In other words, it’s like the dog’s dreams of his own world. Not just the dog’s – his own dream of his own world – his own nightmare of his world. We can’t even feel his world, and we certainly can’t feel his nightmare of his world. And this is the nightmare of his world (web)".

Even here he remains true to the basic gist of the text.  He never forces his reader into an either/or scenario.  Whether or not that is the story he's creating, Dick was determined to leave the final interpretation up to the reader.  In my opinion, then, I'd say he was off to a great start with this one.  It's not as far out there as any of his later efforts, however there's also the fact that it doesn't have to be for an initial effort.  This is the author making first introductions with his audience, and doing it in a very ideal way.  At least he managed to find the right narrative and voice to be able to get people listening.  Trust me when I say that is always one of the monumental feats to pull off.  It can, on occasion, be the sure sign of a genuine artist.  That's what Philip K. Dick proves himself to be here.  It should go without saying that this is just an opening salvo, and the notes are played in a very minor key.  However, this was the story that wound up proving the start of big things.  From here, Dick would go on to have a career that was brilliant, productive, and troubled by turns.  That's a lot of ground to cover, so it makes perfect sense that it's not the sort of thing you can just sum up in the space of one, single, article.

Philip Dick is one of those artists who more or less manages to earn the title of trailblazer for his efforts.  The result is naturally a lot worth talking about.  In many ways, it's not incorrect to claim we've just begun to explore one of the great genre goldmines.  In cases like these, it always helps to start out small and then build your way to the top of the mountain.  That means it's like I said way earlier, it helps to start out with baby steps.  Now I know the complaint that some of the die-hard PKD fans out there are thinking.  Why don't you talk about the real out there stuff?  C'mon, it'll be fun!  I agree.  I also know the sad truth is that every bookworm is forever in a minority.  You might even say that the proper love of literature and Science Fiction is its own "Minority Report".  I'll show myself out now.  

Before I go, however, I'd like to make clear that however much of a drag it may sound, this is the kind of strategy you need to draw in as big a crowd as possible.  It's something that I think all good artists and critics need to learn how to utilize to their advantage.  The value of the baby steps approach, especially with an author like Dick, is that it helps the novice readers familiarize themselves with the ever-shifting territory of the writer's imagined worlds.  That way the audience can decide for themselves if they wish to continue or not.  I would, however, encourage them to give this author a try.  It's no exaggeration at all to claim that he qualifies as "out there".  It marks him out as a perfect example of American literary Surrealism.  It can also be kind of fun, at least if you're willing to grant the author the space he needs in order to work his own peculiar brand of Sci-Fi magic.  A short story like "Roog" thus makes the perfect first offering to potential fans.  It is a great place to get to know the surreal charm of a writer like Philip K. Dick.


  1. I've only read a couple of his novels ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "A Scanner Darkly"), but based on those I've always wanted to go on a deep dive into his bibliography. Sounds like these would be a good place to start!

    I've got that John Clute Illustrated Encylopedia but had forgotten that an image from, of all things, "The Lawnmower Man" is front and center on the cover! I don't think I ever actually read it, though, and it kind of sounds like that might be for the best.

    1. Well, Clute is one of those interesting sorts. He's one of those genre critics whose views of science itself seems almost like a holdover from a time that the actual sciences have progressed well beyond a long time ago.

      From what I can gather, it's like his worldview has become an unintentional anachronism. Like it's still somewhere in the pre-digital revolution age, with guys like John Campbell, and H.G. Wells, thinkers whose views of technical progress never extended beyond the Age of Industrialism. Actual science, of course, is moving well past all that, embracing a more Green friendly, digitized outlook.

      In other words, science and its practitioners have shown an admirable success in learning from the mistakes of the past. Clute, meanwhile, seems kind of oblivious of all this. It's sort of like he's a walking dinosaur. This extends as well to his take on the genre, which doesn't seem to have had an upgrade in the years since his "Encyclopedia" was written. These days most fans refer to it as Sci-Fi Fantasy, in open acknowledgement of the genre's dirty little secret, that it was always more make-believe, than actually scientific.

      The fairy tale kingdom of far, far away was merely translated into space, is all. Apparently its a fascinating, continuous pattern of the human imagination. It always works on familiar material, no matter the look of the stage setting, or cast list. Every space alien, like I've said, is really just a human being, or idea, dressed up in metaphorical terms.

      I think PK was just one of the first who was willing to act as a whistleblower, to tell the dark secret, and that would allow him and future authors to treat the inherent genre backdrop less as a realistic hypothesis which has to be handled like an engineering manual, and more like what properly is, a stage setting in which various psycho-dramas can be enacted. Where the writer is free to share the dreams, nightmares, fears, and hopes about the future in symbolic terms.

      At least there's my working definition of Sci-Fi, and its one that Clute doesn't ever seem to have caught up with. That said, I'd some of his book is worth looking into. Just stay clear of his opinion of 50s Science Fiction films, it's his major blind spot.

      As for PKD, hell yeah this is a good place to start. I've been going through his early short stories, and one of the great things about approaching him in this way is you can see him advancing step by step in his craft as he releases each story for publication. In doing so, he provides his readers with a neat snapshot of the Raygun Gothic era of which he was a pivitol part, as well as foreshadowing the kind of Cyberpunk aesthetic that his serves as one of the pioneering grandfathers of. So yeah, this is definitely a recommended way of catching up.